Thursday, July 19, 2018

On Facts

“Confabulating is a fancy term for shamelessly making things up.”  Macknik & Martinez-Conde (2010)

In the 1970s a man named Uri Geller gained international fame and fortune for his alleged paranormal ability to read peoples’ minds and alter the properties of physical objects, all courtesy of supernatural powers which Geller himself once claimed were given by extraterrestrials.  He was so convincing that millions of people around the world, including two researchers from the Stanford Research Institute, absolutely believed Mr. Geller’s “psychic powers” were genuine.  Whether he willed solid metal spoons to bend like wax before a German audience of 3,000 or accurately reproduced an unseen and impromptu drawing by Barbara Walters on national television, Mr. Geller was widely heralded and idolized as a true phenomenon with seemingly super-human and "special" powers.

Then came Mr. Geller’s August 1, 1973 appearance on the famed “Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson (Season 12, episode 150).  Mr. Carson, who in his earlier days performed magic as “The Great Carsoni,” was skeptical of Mr. Geller’s authenticity as a psychic. Unbeknownst to his superstar guest, Mr. Carson arranged to have a number of common objects on hand for Mr. Geller’s appearance - objects similar to those Mr. Geller famously incorporated into his various exhibitions of "special" mental skills.  Footage of Mr. Geller’s appearance on the Tonight Show can be easily found on YouTube.  

Spoiler alert ... Mr. Geller failed to demonstrate on the Tonight Show, in front of millions of viewers, any psychic abilities whatsoever.  Why?  The fact is, Mr. Geller is not "special" after all.  He is instead, a performer, an illusionist, a professional trickster.  

But wait, there’s more.

One might reasonably assume that such a colossal exposure of fakery on the most watched and longest-running late night program in television history, would send the humiliated perpetrator of such chicanery into uber-obscurity.  Yet that is not what happened.

Instead, Mr. Geller’s popularity and credibility actually grew after his apparent debunking by Johnny Carson.  Yes, you read that correctly ... people believed in Uri Geller’s authenticity as a psychic even more than before, in spite of what they witnessed with their own eyes.  The explanation given is that when believers saw Mr. Geller fail, they rationalized that his powers must be real because if he was just doing tricks, he’d certainly have been able to perform flawlessly on Mr. Carson’s cue.  Uri Geller’s failure was seen as proof that he is a human, who like all of us, has skills that can be strong one day and not so strong the next.  

How is it that intelligent, experienced and reasonable people can be presented with a set of absolute and indisputable facts, only to then reconstruct them into an alternate reality based on a completely fabricated “fact” set?”

The answer may partially lie in the psychological principle of “cognitive dissonance.”  This principle refers to situations in which two or more ideas, behaviors, facts, or beliefs are in conflict with one another. The conflict is resolved (rationalized) by changing one’s internal narrative to align with one of the conflicting ideas, behaviors, beliefs or fact sets.  In other words, as former President Barack Obama said in a speech earlier this week when referring to the ways in which some politicians today deal with cognitive dissonance, "People just make stuff up."

Cognitive dissonance appears to be as powerful and addictive now as it was in the 1970s, or at any other time.  How else do we explain that "would" really means "wouldn't," that "choice" in education should really excuse decades of outright discrimination, that bullies are really victims, that biased opinion is really news or that surface learning is really meaningful, innovative and different?  Perhaps this quote by author, editor and Presidential historian, Jon Meacham helps answer the question,
"America has long raised political and cultural cognitive dissonance to an art form.  We are capable of living with enormous inequality and injustice while convincing ourselves that we are in fact moving toward what Churchill called the "broad, sun-lit uplands."
I don't know about you, but today's confabulations by those desperately peddling their misguided narratives, alternate facts and revisionist history, is cognitive dissonance that makes me long for the good old days of Uri Geller and his bent spoons.


  • Macknik, S., Martinez-Conde, S., & Blakeslee, S. (2010). Sleights of mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions. Henry Holt and Company.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

On Managers and Leaders

“Committed leaders, those with a lust for leadership, a willingness to serve, will, however, be distinguishable by their wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, authority and courage. They will have a human quality and a strong commitment to their cause and to that of those they serve.”  from “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by Wes Roberts, Ph.D.

Before I begin this post, thanks to all who have been reading the thoughts I've shared on this blog.  As I write this, nearly 1,200 views from the US and abroad, have been logged since June 27th. That's not nearly as huge as some blogs, but it’s a good start and I'm grateful to all who are taking the time to read these words.  I hope the information, ideas, lessons learned and stories told are useful to you in some way.  Now on to the post ....

Prior to becoming RVSD’s Superintendent in August 2014, I proudly served four California public school districts in roles ranging from teacher to deputy superintendent.  In all five districts (two of them hired me twice), I’ve been fortunate to learn from some truly gifted mentor-leaders.  The confidence they placed in me over the decades and the awesome responsibilities they entrusted to my care, have never been taken for granted.  On the contrary, the lessons of leadership and moral courage my mentors shared (and still do), light my own leadership path and serve as touchstones to inspire continuous reflection and improvement.

My first principal once confided in me, “Leadership is hard work and getting it 100% right, 100% of the time, is possible only for those who talk about it with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and no actual leadership responsibility or experience themselves.”  As a first or second year teacher, I thought his comment was a bit cynical.  But after years in a variety of leadership roles, where much has gone right and some wrong, my first principal (and mentor) was a wise man who spoke the truth.  I miss you Mr. B.

That leadership is hard, leaders are fallibly human and their decisions will be criticized, is embedded within every leader’s job description.  It comes with the territory.  What’s fascinates me, though, are the elements of leadership that make it so complex and ultimately differentiate those who lead with purpose and moral courage from the rest of the leadership pack.

One such element is the notion that leaders may think they are leading, when in fact they are not leading at all - they are managing.

In 2012, while completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California, I was introduced to the work of Dr. Warren Bennis, distinguished professor of business administration at USC and a pioneer in the field of leadership studies.  In his book “On Becoming a Leader” (first published in 1989), Dr. Bennis elaborates fully on what leadership is, what it isn’t and the challenges of leading with moral courage.  Dr. Bennis wrote,
I tend to think of the differences between leaders and managers as the differences between those who master the context and those who surrender to it. There are other differences, as well, and they are enormous and crucial.
  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
Over the years a number of my mentors shared perspectives on leadership similar to those of Dr. Bennis, while also noting that some people prefer their school, school district, business or organization to be led by managers rather than leaders.  That may be what some people prefer and I'm sure they have their reasons, but I did not choose public education as my life's work so I could become a manager.

In fact, most education leaders I know have little interest in managing anything or anyone.  Their interest and mine as well, is to lead ... not for the sake of being the leader, wielding power, etc., but for the sake of giving students true and equitable opportunities to reach their unique potential.  Perhaps that sounds trite, naive, overly ambitious or a bit too much like a typical mission statement.  Yet these are exactly the gifts many of us received through our schooling as we were growing up. We can all recall those special people, those leaders, who helped us find our way and didn't let go of our hands until we could safely navigate on our own.  We are where we are because of them.  What they did for us, we can do for the generations that follow.  It takes bold leadership, not management, to make that possible.

I think the vast majority of us who willingly assume the responsibilities of leadership, likely aspire to be the type of leader Dr. Bennis writes about and we observe in the mentors who so generously share their hard-earned wisdom with us. And certainly, even the most skilled of leaders among us, temporarily lapses now and again into a manager mindset.  Leadership is a constant work in progress for all who seriously engage in it.  I too am always learning and while there have been, are and will be many leadership successes to celebrate, there are also leadership failures to learn from.  Successes and failures are a package deal in leadership and you guessed it, they are also embedded in every leader's job description.

It is important to remember, however, that as Dr. Bennis explains, leadership requires a long-range perspective.  Getting from here to there is a journey whose path will never be a perfectly straight and clear line.  Leadership with a long-range perspective means having the moral courage to make hard, often uncomfortable and sometimes even unpopular decisions.  Taking the long view is not easy, particularly in public education where our children are in classrooms right now and can't necessarily wait for whatever impact may be coming in ten or more years as a result of today's decision.  Balancing short-term needs with a long-term perspective and making decisions accordingly, is what successful leaders do.

Every education leader knows the dynamics of this balancing act is a recipe for decision-making that will result in some level of disagreement and push-back.  This too, comes with the territory and we accept it when we accept these roles.  In the vast majority of situations, such feedback can be very helpful, insightful, constructive and yes, appreciated.  Occasionally the level of disagreement goes beyond feedback and morphs into second-guessing, blaming, vilifying, personal attacking or worse.  This is unproductive, of course, but it happens.  On the rare occasions when it does, leaders take comfort remembering (even if others don't) that everything happens in context, that decisions are not made in a vacuum, that there is ALWAYS more to a story than whatever is printed in a newspaper or on social media and that those of us charged with actually doing the work have access to data and information others do not or cannot have.  In short, my first principal was right ... unproductive and ill-informed attacks on leadership from the sidelines with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight is, plain and simple, just that.

A few weeks ago a parent asked me, "how do you do it?"  She was referring to my role as Superintendent and all that goes on in a school district when one year is ending and everyone is deep in preparation for the year to come.  I responded by saying that everyone in our district (teachers, staff, administrators and parents) has a lot on their plate. Somehow we manage to keep teaching, learning, parenting, continuously improving and above all, leading. 

In reflecting on that conversation, I'm reminded that at USC, every single Trojan is practically tattooed with two words that I'm sure Dr. Bennis himself spoke to his many students.  Those words are, "Fight on!"  Far be it for me to challenge the fine traditions of the House of Troy, but if it were up to me, I think I'd change those words to "Lead on!"  That, my wonderful blog readers, is how we do it.


Epilogue:  I opened this post with a quote from a book titled, "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun," a book recommended to me long ago by one of my favorite teachers.  Don't let the title fool you, as it and Dr. Bennis' book are two of the best books you may ever read on leadership!

  • Bennis, W. (2003). On becoming a leader (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
  • Roberts, W. (2007). Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun. Grand Central Publishing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Deception

“When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”  Euripides, Orestes

Last week I attended the annual fundraising dinner for SchoolsRule Marin and during the social hour I ran into a guy doing magic tricks for a small group of mesmerized onlookers.  What a treat!

I’ve always loved magic, magicians and the sense of childhood wonder I still get from seeing a well-performed bit of prestidigitation.  Privileged to have seen many such performances in my life, I’m awed by the dexterous skill, performing ability, timing, creativity and attention to detail that are the real secrets of magic and the answer to the question, “how did she/he do that?”

My own journey studying, learning and performing magic began at fourteen or fifteen, when I needed an outlet from hours of swimming workouts (a story for another time).  I was so excited when my mom first took me to a local store devoted to performing magicians. In that musty old shop, secrets unfolded as I had my first opportunity to know and learn from some patient, kind and always interesting characters.  These people actually made their living using anything from a simple deck of cards to a stage full of illusions.  If it had anything to do with magic, they’d seen and done it all. To a kid just bitten by the magic bug, these grizzled veterans seemed like human encyclopedias of magical knowledge and I loved hearing their endlessly entertaining stories of magicians past, present and future.

One of the first lessons I learned from these real world wizards, is that a small action can easily be masked by a larger action.  For example, a basic coin vanish involves holding the coin at the fingertips of one hand and pretending to place it in the other, while secretly retaining the coin in the palm of the original hand.  The action of moving the coin from the fingertips to the palm is the small action and it might easily be seen if that was the only thing happening.  But the larger action of moving one hand toward the other creates a visual distraction lasting just long enough to imperceptibly palm the coin and thereby create the illusion the coin was transferred from one hand to the other..

Interestingly, the principle of larger, less important actions masking smaller, more important ones is not peculiar only to purveyors of trickery and sleight of hand.  If you think about it, this same basic principle of deception can be applied to the actions of government, big business, the media and politics large and small.

Deception can be fun when we run into a magician at a SchoolsRule event or see David Copperfield perform in Vegas, but it loses its luster quickly when access, equity and the education of our children are undermined while the larger action is intended to distract us.

Poof! That’s when the magic disappears.